Sunday, June 28, 2009

Zoology & Traps

In those times when I'm not writing, there is some relief from the pressure of readying for a campaign Saturday nights ... so I find myself working on my beastiary. Specifically, trying to crack the encounter tables problem.

I know that for many encounter tables are not seen as a problem. Their campaigns are a carefully designed parade of confrontations with prepared monster groups, each stage of combat culminating in an inevitable treasure-providing climax. But for those of us for whom the game is a simulation, encounter tables are an enormous headache. Because they are, in a word, shit.

I wrote about that eleven months ago, so I can skip it. Instead I want to focus on just a few problems with specific monsters, and suggestions how they might get used.

There are two groups of creatures I have found consistently annoying. The first comprises the collection of insidious grub-like killers: the ear seeker, the rot grub and the throat leech, to name three prime examples.

You have to be some kind of sadist as a DM to use these things. I presume their primary function is to wear the party down, cost them a few hit points or deplete their spell supply. Seriously, I've always had trouble using them. Now and then I've had a pile of rot grub kill the expendable NPC, but I have never actually had a party member drink a throat leech or have an ear seeker invade a sleeping character. The idea that an ear seeker would happen to be in the exact place where a player puts his ear to a door is ridiculous. The only place it occurs on the original DMG encounter tables is the Level 1 Dungeon Table ... where it has a 1 in 100 chance of being present. What happens if no one happens to lay down or press their ear to something in that room?

What it actually means is that you must reroll ... which is what we all do when these things are indicated. We reroll, and reroll, and reroll, until we get something practical like orcs.

In all honesty, the only practical use for these monsters is as a trap - the table on which these things should appear. The only way that an ear seeker is going to get shoved in your ear is if somehow there's a device that puts it there. In other words, at the bottom of the pit there are spikes, or someone has carefully collected four hundred rot grub. The same might be applied to a pool, when entering it and failing to save causes you to sleep and allows your mouth to open - at once, one of thousands of leeches immediately enters your gullet. Now, not only does the party have to save you from drowning, they must heat up some kind of wire (after pulling themselves from the wet) to keep you from choking. Nasty.

Alternately, how about a creature which specifically lives in tandem with ear-seekers or throat leeches? That is, it strikes you in the side of your head, and on a natural 20 it launches an ear seeker straight into your ear. That would make you think.

Otherwise you're creating scenarios where the ear seeker tactically drops from the ceiling, hits you dead on in the ear and scurries in before you can say boo. Not bad aim for a non-intelligent creature. It must have a sensory device that detects ears moving underneath and provides spot bombing ability.

I actually had a DM do this in a game once. The encounter table said ear seeker and damned if we didn't get one with Olympic-level vaulting capabilities.




The other creature group that I despise comprises of plants which either a) move very, very slowly, or b) not at all. There are a bunch in the Fiend Folio, but let me concentrate on the shrieker and the violet fungi, as they are older and representative to the genre.

The shrieker we all know well. Low AC, lots of hit points and hit dice, good experience for low level parties. If you're lucky, you can kill it before the "50% chance of attracting wandering monsters" kicks in.

Seriously, if there was such a creature, terrifically safe to have around (no attack, no damage), wouldn't every humanoid on the planet cultivate these things in every hallway as a natural alarm system? Assuming of course that every rat, centipede or beetle didn't make it shriek fifteen times a day, pretty much eradicating anyone's interest in coming to check out what's making the fucking thing go off this time. The creature's very presence in the monster manual suggests that somehow this dungeon must be completely unviolated by the movement of any creature except the party - effectively existing in suspended animation. Sort of a Descartian universe: nothing exists until it is detected by the party's five senses.

Again, presuppose a trap. The shrieker sits in an enclosed, dark space, completely inviolate; you feed it from time to time. The party enters a hallway, trips the trap and the shrieker drops out of its box, landing on a party member. It shrieks. Guards come a'running in force.

Alternately, imagine the following signal system: build a tight, lightless box, with a small sliding door, just two inches high, that allows in light; open the slide, the shrieker screams. Close it and the shrieker calms down and stops screaming. Provide one of these boxes at every guard entrance - alarm problem solved.

The violet fungi is another problem. The largest is described as being 7' tall and having 4' branches. Assuming the body is two feet wide, this gives it a 10' reach. Mystically, this creature is described as having a movement of 1" ... in strict AD&D terms, in the outdoors this is 10 yards per one-minute round, or six-inches a second. That is a fast-moving plant. (The shrieker moves at the same pace)

Still, its only 1/6th as fast as a fighter in plate mail, so unless you are the blunderer for all ages, this thing isn't going to touch you. I suppose it is assumed that either you aren't going to notice it (oh look, another seven-foot-tall purple mushroom - I must get one of those for the den) or its going to be in the way just when you really need to go down that hallway.

It's pretty stupid to assume this thing isn't just going to get killed by a lit bottle of oil or a barrage of arrows; so again, we're not talking about something that's an actual threat, just something to drain off the party's resources.

Which brings us back to the trap. Put four of these things at the bottom of a ten-foot pit. Screw the crocodiles - when the party is working its way along the ledge, have the huge floor below overgrown with violet fungi. Guaranteed to kill even the hardiest 20th level characters. Let's see, 2' diameter, approximately 3.14 square feet per fungi, allowing for 50% empty space between creatures, equals 21.23142 violet fungi per 10'x10' square, multiplied by an average of 2.5 branches allows 53 potential attacks per round - well, less really, as the fungi themselves get in the way, lets cut it in half and say 27 ... 3HD creatures have a THACO of 16, 14 from behind, the shield protecting against only 17% of the attacks ... could hurt.

Those are just some recent thoughts, put here for interests sake.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Campaign Suspended

As my regular visitors might know, I have been unemployed now for seven weeks. I have been feeling disconnected, disconsolate and generally down. This has affected my energy and has considerably increased my level of stress.

I have been thinking about what I need to concentrate on apart from finding work. I have recently had some encouragement on the possibility of returning to my previous position – the journal has been sold and is undergoing reorganization, with the possibility for further employment. At the same time, I’ve reviewed what commitments I’ve made and what commitments I need to fulfill ... and this has led me to think that my focus should be on completing the rewrite of my book, something I have been putting off for more than a year. I have the time. I have not had the motivation.

I’ve let my offline players know that I am suspending our game until late August or September. I am really only three to six weeks from having my novel ready to be sent to a publisher ... but that assumes I will dedicate myself wholly to that task. I want to do so.

As such, I’m saying that my online campaign must be suspended also, for the same period. It is not that this takes a lot of my time; but it does require that I think about the campaign upon waking and sitting at the computer, which is a distraction. A pleasant distraction, true, but unfortunately not a constructive one.

This will not come as good news to you fine gentlemen who have yourselves made the effort to play. Your expectation will be, no doubt, that this is it and that a promise of a few months will extend to six months until it is conveniently forgotten. This is not my nature. I have definite ideas in my head as to where a ghoul hunt, an exploration into the meaning of a glyph, a joining of the mages’ guild, or the thankful request of Hornung the Paladin might lead. I want to pursue those roads as much as you, I promise.

I know that you will wish me well. I don’t plan on going anywhere. From time to time I intend to continue to post here, as inspiration strikes me. Lately, it has not been striking much, mostly due to my state of mind as I’ve described. I’m going to write further on that for my other blog, for those who might be interested ... but as it does not directly relate to D&D, I will not continue on that subject here.

I am far too committed to this blog to ever want to stop. However, it is a good book, it has a legitimate chance of being published and I feel that is where my energy should go.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Denmark

Now, this was not easy. For reference, this is in the same scale as the Switzerland map I posted five months ago. Producing this involved some head-banging moments, I promise you.

But I feel proud of it and want to post. I also want to make the point that very rarely do self made worlds bother with multiple islands arranged in archipelagos. If your continents seem a little smooth around the edges, consider raising one.

Denmark, unlike many other island groups like Greece, Indonesia, the Philippines or the Carribean, is flat ... which accounts for much of this all being one color:

Monday, June 8, 2009

Campaign: Resting

I have heard only from Anshelm, confirming the fact, but still I thought I'd move ahead with the suggestion that the party remains where it is, at the Pig, until the following Thursday, May 14th.

The cost on the considered house, for which the floor plan was posted a few days ago, would be 165 g.p. per month. In addition to the three floors presented, there is a cellar half the floorspace of the house and a yard which extends for 60 feet in back. The property is thus altogether 90'x20'. The yard will serve for grazing animals or for growing vegetables, as this was typical for the period, thus reducing the amount of money you would need for food. Obviously, the Pig is much cheaper, but I would remind the party that on any given night any person might sleep in the common room with you (there are no individual rooms) ... so a private home would be that much more secure.

I'll hold back on other events/hearsay for the week until I hear more from the party about how they want to spend that week, resting moderately to gain back hit points.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Die

Two weeks ago I posted pictures of my Player's Handbook and DM's Guide. I mentioned my 30-year old die, and regretted that I had not had a picture taken of it.

Here it is:




This proved harder than you'd think. Ever tried to take a picture of a white die on a dismally dark day, when the die has no contrasting features whatsoever?

Friday, June 5, 2009

3-Storey Half-Timbered House

In and around being told how to behave on my blog, I spent the day designing a three-story house for one of my offline players: Stone exterior, walls 1' thick, wood interior. As it turns out, I can use this also for my online players, who have made comments about renting a particular house.

I designed the plan based upon that book I read a few months ago, The Culture of Cities, by Lewis Mumford. He describes a very different 17th century house; one in which there are no windows along the side walls, as the house is built immediately adjacent to its neighbors with no space between. For there to be light in such a house, there needed to be an open space in the middle, enabling light from the ceiling to enter. In the floorplan below, you need to know that there are three large windows above the open space depicted on the second and third floors (I didn't have time today to design it).



I should also note that the thin dark-orange lines are railings.

I really hate this stuff. Like desking for a publication. Too niggling.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Player's Cleric

In spite of some of the comments on the previous thread, it has been my experience that unless a DM leans on the cleric, the cleric won’t behave all that piously. Pobody suggests a practical system, though in essence it is little more than the usual pressure through extortion (behave or lose spells) dressed up so that the cleric knows exactly how the extortion will work. R makes some good arguments for the motivations of gods to test and shape their followers. Since, however, the ‘gods’ are really just me, I can’t fool myself that I’m playing out the parameters of the game rather than flatly invoking my will (and my perception of the cleric) upon the player.

I have made no secret of the fact that I’m opposed to such things philosophically.

Wouldn’t it be preferential for the cleric to seek out their god for reasons of their own? Because there were positive gains to be had? In other words, can we drop the whip and invoke the carrot?

I have three proposals, all of which I think depend on the player’s conception of their cleric and how best to participate in the campaign. None rely remotely upon my action as the DM. For the record, as far as I know there have been no other suggestions along these lines.

1. Helpful Spells.

First of all, consider the helpful nature of the clerical spells. That is nothing profound, it is immediately obvious to any player – the clerical spells are not offensive, they’re defensive.

From the point of view of the NPC, particularly the impoverished NPC, even a first level cleric’s spells are a magnificent god-send. Why is it that a cleric, who has the time and the power, never thinks to turn their spells into goodwill from the local peasants or whomever else the cleric chooses? Why not wander about the countryside, purifying the local wells, healing the odd individual who has fallen from a roof or cut themselves with an axe? Why not aid a huntsman for the day? Or put a glyph, free of charge, on the front door of a poor man’s hovel, one who has eight children and who worries about their safety? These things are cheap and simple for the cleric. For the individual, to purchase such a spell is completely beyond their means. The DM’s Guide recommends 100 g.p. for a cure light wounds. Attempting to give it an economic basis, in my online world I’ve given the price as 17 g.p. Do you think a cotter with an injured child can afford such a thing?

Yet what will that cotter say when that 1st level cleric appeared and healed their child – for free? Do you think they will be distrustful? If so, you know little of human behavior, particularly among the poor. In reality, a local village will love a cleric because he will sit at their bedsides and hear their stories or confessions. Add to that the improved safety and survival of the community through magical means. To say that this could be returned practically is putting it mildly. Need a ditch dug or a barn raised? Need a horse for the day from one of the local freeholders? Short on food? Don’t you see that the merest word that Good Father Jakob is going on a journey would encourage the entire community to show up, make sure he has enough to eat, encourage him to look up their relatives if he needs a place to stay, travel along with him a few miles on the road to see that he’s safely on his way and so on. Such a cleric would never need a bed in an inn, would never want for helpful friends, would never lack character witnesses – and would even gain the goodwill of the local lord when his healthy tenants managed their rent or produced their quotas more efficiently.

Does the party need men-at-arms? Why would you need to advertise? Peasant Theobald’s sister’s first cousin has been training with weapons since age five and has four friends – he’d love the work. And when those five guardsmen show up, they may admire the fighter in the party or be amazed by the mage, but they will adore the cleric whom they’ve heard so much about. And they will be of the cleric’s religion. They will follow the fighter’s instructions because the cleric says so. In case you don’t realize, this has been the manner of armies since, well, ever.

You understand, the mage can’t work this way. He may dazzle with a dancing lights spell or ease someone’s burden for a few hours with a Tenser’s floating disc, but most of the time his offensive spells are going to frighten ordinary people rather than help them. The cleric, on the other hand, is seen as a go-between between themselves and a terrifying god – having the cleric on their side offers a tremendous comfort. Do not underestimate the practical aspect of that comfort.

Of course, many DMs will resist this sort of influence by a cleric in their campaigns, seeing it as anathema to the restrictions or limitations they insist must be a player’s lot. I prefer to let the players find ways to make their lives easier ... if they will do so intelligently.

2. Helpful Church

All too often, the player cleric’s church is seen as a wart on the player’s free will. The church tells them what to do, the church tells them where to do it, the church is full of rules and pushy masters dictating this and that to the player. This is how DMs typically run a church. They see it as an impenetrable hierarchy, testy and exploitive, an iron hand micro-managing every cleric’s specific activity from day to day. Partly this is due to the influence of films and stories which depend upon a villainous entity opposing the virtuous and ultimately successful loner. Partly this is due to most D&D players instinctive dislike for any kind of authority, bred in them occasionally by a particular church when they were young.

In actual fact, no successful entity can function if abuse of authority or petty manipulation are the order of the day. Some of this might go on, yes ... but the normal order of events would be that of a club of individuals who are anxious to create success though mutual aid and service. A cleric who is in good standing with his church, who collects for it a reasonable tithe (10% of the cleric’s personal income), should receive back in kind very much the sort of goodwill discussed earlier among local peasants and landholders. A cleric should never want for lodging in any city of the world where there is a church, nor for want of information, short-term financial support, equipment (any equipment, not just weapons and armor), political influence or military aid (even if the cleric’s level only merits a bodyguard). Obviously a church might limit the cleric from borrowing a war galley ‘just to pop off across the gulf for a few days,’ but should the cleric need to get across the gulf for good reason, the church might quickly work out a passage with some good captain who is well known to the church and is going there anyway. At possibly no immediate cost to the cleric. They might tell him, “Just add a bit more to the coffer next time around,” saying nothing else about it.

The more cynical of my gentle readers may see immediately how this would impose reverse limitations on the cleric – other clerics showing up to impose for money, aid, and that standard ‘mission for the church’ to which I’m opposed. You will note, however, that I didn’t suggest the cleric show up in an odd town and insist on the local priest’s personal intervention in the cleric’s activities. Only for the sort of aid which can be quickly put off onto clerks, stewards and the like. “Get him passage to Oslo. See that he gets a chance to look over the armoury. And he needs a cure light wounds scroll.”

Would a player, I wonder, be willing to provide a stranger of the same religion a scroll on a moment’s notice, expecting never to see it again? I think probably a player would rather commit his or herself to the adventure personally rather than do such a thing. But that is wrong thinking. What goes around comes around ... and once a cleric has gained a reputation, quite a lot can come around.

Players usually, in my experience, insist on choosing obscure religions from which there can never be any help (nor any imposition). They would rather be alone. In my online campaign, having given his assent to starting in Germany and being well aware that Catholicism and Protestantism would be the norm, he chose an obscure Polish paganistic sect. In my offline campaign, where the party started in Russia, the cleric chose to follow Buddhism and the druid chose Celtism. The latter was at least a little closer to the norm – but rather than move closer to the Celtic orbit, and into Scandinavia, the party instead chose to travel south and east, ostensibly towards China. In other words, farther from their church – one may presume for various reasons. Because religion wasn’t important and because organized religion is a fucking pain in the ass.

Every organized religion has a traditional portion of its holy persons acting according to their own personal relationship with God. Francis of Assisi or Benedict, founding unique monastic orders; Jesus or John, itinerant preachers who considered themselves wholly Jewish (and who were killed for preaching outside the established order and from political expedience, NOT because they were loners); Confucius, who spent most of his life being kicked from one court to another, who followed the traditional religion ‘religiously’ but whose personal ideas were tolerated; Laozi who proposed the Daoist school; Mozi who proposed Mohism; Zoroaster; the Brahmin priests who wrote the Upanishads long after the founding of Hinduism; Mahavira who founded the Jain sect. We have a tendency to think of these things as ‘heresies’ due to our western catholic perceptions ... when in fact these advances were widely embraced improvements on earlier systems of thought and worship. Churches know that there must be a unique, barely influenced group seeking personal religion because they creates vitality in what would otherwise become a stale and declining religion. The ‘gods’ would know this also, and would know enough to keep their hands off clerics who might someday prove greater than their predecessors.

A cleric should never be a ‘follower’. Yet this is the word most commonly used: a cleric ‘follows’ his religion. But a cleric should be a LEADER. Like the mage and the fighter, the player cleric is not an ordinary individual ... and should NOT be bound by ordinary concerns.

3. Money.

In spite of what the book suggests, gods, rituals and practices do NOT underlay the fabric of the church. The gods can’t be bothered (it would be a stupid world where the gods intervened constantly, more so if that was the experience of every person dwelling in that world as well as the players), while rituals and practices are just a dumb-show to impress the locals. Churches run on money. Money pays the army, it builds the churches, it greases the local nobility, it provides for maintenance and for research, it promotes influence and it motivates. A church will last very little time without money to do all of that.

The manner in which this money is gathered is called the ‘collect.’ It is the vast sum of money that a frightened populace is prepared to hand over in order to keep the gods from getting more involved. Lots of money keeps the gods content and happy. A God that showed up every five minutes might awe those immediately present, but the successful cleric is going to be the one who represents another god and who says, “give me money and my god will kick that god’s ass.” In D&D, since all the gods are real, this is probably true.

Gods do not make themselves more welcome by hanging around.

Why would a cleric build a church? For the money. A church is a factory ... and the bigger the church, the more money it makes. Throughout the centuries various religious leaders have understood very clearly that a BIG, BIG church will pour money into the religion’s empty coffers. That is the reason why St. Peter’s was built in Rome during the counter-Reformation, why the Mezquita was built in Cordoba, Spain, and why the Hagia Sofia was built by Justinian in Constantinople. This are unbelievably immense structures, encouraging people to travel thousands of miles to see them and to leave their money.

Think of your player’s church as a money-making entrepreneurial venture. I propose that for every 100 g.p. spent on the structure, it should earn 4 g.p. per month: 2 g.p. to be paid to the religious organization as a tithe, 1 g.p. for maintenance and 1 g.p. to go into the cleric’s pocket, to do with as he or she sees fit. The bigger the church, the bigger the return. This is not very far from the reality. During the 30 Years War in Germany, the Protestants and Catholics vied to destroy one another’s churches (and thus their potential revenue) while defending and building more of their own. Tithes paid for that war ... and virtually for every war preceding it, as governments had not quite mastered the method of running on a deficit (which was standardized during the Baroque effort) and free money is the easiest to pay back.

No doubt this last will be the hardest to swallow – for anyone who has not actually worked within a religious entity, or who has not had experience with their bookkeeping. I would note that the Catholic church continues to be the largest landlord in the world, a condition which was created through the spreading of religion and the gathering of the collect. Very often the Catholic church as been able to put its own army in the field, a circumstance reflected very definitely by the gathering of men-at-arms as described in the Player’s Handbook.

Did you think the player was supposed to pay those troops out of his own pocket? Or maybe that they would graciously fight for free. That could be ... but what would they eat?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

No Piety, Please

A recent post by Ryan has got me thinking that I have hardly written anything about clerics. This coupled with the party in the online campaign suffering somewhat from a lack of healing, having lost their cleric to the winds of change, plus the complete disinterest in anyone from the blogosphere coming forward to play a cleric, impels me to write.

Ryan asks the question, “Though many versions of many players handbooks throughout the years have mentioned time and again about a cleric advancing his temple/deity/cause's interests, how often does your average DM or player actually do anything of the sort?” To which the answer is, naturally, virtually no one.

There’s no doubt that the cleric is the least liked character. There are a number of reasons for that, not the least of which is the general dislike that RPG players have for traditional Western organized religion. One might say that religion is the antithesis of D&D, as virtually everything about the game flies in the face of what the church deems moral behaviour: the embracing of evil, the butchery of random creatures, greed, the depiction of devils and demons, etc. There may be Christian groups out there playing D&D, but they’re not particularly vocal. It has been my experience that players who come to the table have generally chosen to leave their religion elsewhere.

So the cleric seems like the player must put on a straight-jacket of behaviour, to obey both God and Church, and in the process become the thorn in the side for every party member who wants to rape and pillage. (Well, pillage. D&D has surprisingly little rape).

The game has done little to remove this stigma.

Take the most useless book ever produced: the Deities and Demigods. In the paltry section at the front of the book, which should have been a beacon to clerics, do we start with, ‘How to run a cleric?’ No, what we start with is ‘Dungeon Mastering Divine Beings.’ Because what is really important is teaching the DM how to use gods as monsters or as a means of railroading the party into adventures; quote: “... the characters themselves may be asked to (or given no choice but to) take part in the maneuverings of the gods’ forces upon earth.”

This is followed by the section, ‘Clerics and Deities’, which goes on to describe other means of railroading, as well as blatant threats to take spells away from clerics who do not accept said railroading. This is followed by two completely useless pages about omens and immortality. And that’s all. The fuckwits at TSR really earned their money that day.

Given that, why would anyone want to be a cleric? Well, the spells are fairly decent and clerics go up levels considerable faster than mages (at the beginning), so that is at least something. Give me the healing, let me turn a few undead and let’s just agree not to make a big deal out of the god thing, all right? To which most DMs will agree. I’m not that much of a stickler myself. I’ve never removed spells from a cleric – never felt that was necessary. I’ve occasionally made a cleric walk over fire for a god, invariably because after five levels of the cleric barely acknowledging that gods exist, they suddenly want something.

(I have this problem in particular with druids).

Ryan brings up a few points: 1) that the cleric is usually the only one in the party who actually worships at all; 2) what is the cleric doing with this party of grubby bastards; and 3) who watches the temple if there is one? These are all salient. I’d answer that the cleric is the only one who worships because he’s the only one who has to; that the cleric is usually no less grubby that his companions; and that most assets owned by parties (castles, gatehouses, various entrepreneurial ventures such as inns or blacksmithies) all have a magic protective field that automatically stops them from being destroyed or fucked with when the party is out of town. Not that it should be that way – it just usually IS.

I don’t particularly have problem with clerics being with ruffians – Friar Tuck is the traditional example, a swordsman comparable with Robin and a dwarvish appetite. There’s nothing about clerics that insists they must be upstanding members of the community. That is a trope invented with the Victorian Age; if you haven’t read The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, then you know jack shit about medieval clerics. To note another source from the period, Dante’s Inferno was full of clerics.

A cleric is perfectly in his right to do nothing for a party who will not pay lip service to the religion. In fact, there are several spells which I impose a strict limitation on with regards to players who are not invested in the cleric’s religion – protection from evil, bless, chant, prayer, combine, to name a few. If you’re not of the cleric’s religion, you don’t get the benefit. It is the cleric, tolerating the party’s heathen behaviour, that enables indifference and apathy. Admittedly, most parties would rather do without a cleric than mumble a few gracious words to a god in exchange for a cure light wounds. That is only pride, however. Watch how a party will scrape and bow when it comes to getting raised.

That is the DMs fault, usually. Unless the party isn’t being made to perform a quest, the raise dead spell is generally as available to a party as a suit of armor. “We’ll get him raised,” the party says casually, never thinking that perhaps the local 9th level cleric might have a better use for that spell on a daily basis than bestowing it on nere-do-wells who blow into town with a dead body. Got money? Oh sure, here’s your spell. How often does an NPC cleric stop to consider whether this adventurer covered in blood deserves to be raised?

I won’t argue that a cleric who withholds his spells is going to quickly find himself isolated come the next encounter. A player’s antipathy towards ANY pretence of religion would incline you to think that the very act of saying “Thank you God” will spontaneously invoke vomiting from every participant at the table. So naturally, even a gung ho cleric quickly washes himself squeaky clean from any hint of piety, rapidly becoming a mage with poor spells who quickly goes up levels.

I want to explain why that is poor thinking, on both the player’s and the DM’s part, but not today. I’ll pick this up in the next post.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Campaign: A Gathering At The Pig

It is about four bells in the afternoon when Tiberius, Delfig, Kazimir and Anshelm all find themselves together at the Pig. They have spent a short time sorting themselves out, explaining their experiences to one another, making a quick examination of their equipment (left in Helmunt's care) and settled down for an ale (3 s.p. each, fellows, if you want one).

Please, talk among yourselves.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pricing A Ghoul's Heart

A problem has come up, one of my own making. In my on-line campaign, I put a comment in an NPC’s mouth about the obtaining of ‘ghoul’s hearts’ and that it was a practice that paid well. That’s fine and all, but just how exactly does one determine the price paid for a ghoul’s heart?

Most DMs would, naturally, pull a number out of the air or out of their ass and that would be that. Clean, simple, straightforward ... no problem. Fifty g.p. No, wait, five hundred g.p. No, that’s a little high. 100? 150? Okay, let’s say 150, but if it turns out to be way too easy, I’ll knock it down to 100. Or 50 if the party gets too many. Yeah, that works.

Actually, no it doesn’t. You make a deal with the party to pay them such-and-such per ghoul’s heart, and the party gets really really clever and comes up with 75 hearts (by luring the nasties into some trap by means of magic, obviously) and you’re stuck having to either be an asshole or accepting that you’ve just enabled your party to buy a quaint little six story tower.

Wouldn’t it be nice to at least have a justification beyond some number you’re able to poop out? That’s how I see it. That’s what I try to do.

My friend Delfig has been doing some figuring on the price of beef vs. land, so I’m hoping this will be of some help to him and to others who have expressed interest.

How does one figure the price of anything? To understand a basic tenet of my method, start here, or just accept some of what I’m about to tell you. I have a tendency to rush through some of my thinking processes, so I’ll try to slow them down a bit.

To begin with, everything has a “reference.” This is my term for the point value assigned to a place or region’s production of a given thing. For all practical purposes, let us take cows, which have come up in past posts of mine and which Delfig recently addressed. Let us start with a region, say “Upper Bavaria,” which conveniently has 2 points for cows, or 2 ‘references’.

When computing the total references for a specific trading city in Upper Bavaria (Dachau, for example), one begins with the 2 references already mentioned, and then one begins to add references from other places. According to a long established economic formula, a market which is twice as far away has one half the influence on a given market. For example, if you are one day away from Cincinnati, and two days away from Columbus, then Cincinnati has twice as much influence on your local prices than Columbus.

This is true even in the modern age, when virtually everything is one day away from everything else ... where distances are measured in hours and minutes rather than days. The principal remains in place, no less so for the late medieval period, when everything travelled much more slowly.

If we set Upper Bavaria at a distance of ‘1’, so that the references from Upper Bavaria are divided by 1 (2/1 = 2), then we can create a similar modifier for every other place on earth, provided we know the distance. Cows from the lower Danube valley are divided by 20 (the river makes transport quickly), cows from Russia by 40 or 50, cows from the middle east by 70 or 80, cows from India by 120 and so on. Let’s keep in mind that I have more than 500 trade locations to calculate in order to determine exactly what the ‘cow count’ is for Dachau, which I don’t want to list one by one ... and for other reasons which will become clear, I want to resist using the actual figures for Dachau. Let’s say instead that the total number of references for cows in Dachau comes to a very convenient 2.5% of the world’s total. And just for further convenience, let’s say that everything else in Dachau also equals 2.5% of the world’s total ... so that we can move forward on the premise that nothing is extraordinarily rare or expensive, which would muck up the numbers.

After all, cows in northern Siberia would be somewhat rarer than in Dachau. Cows might be more common in Dachau than what I’m about to suggest. But the model is the important thing, not the exact numbers.

All right. 2.5% of the world’s cow references measures 8.825. This number is measured against the price of gold (used as the standard for all other commodities) and we discover that the price of a cow is 207.32 c.p.

But is it? This price only reflects the comparative availability of cattle according to the total number of cattle that exists in the world. That alone is NOT sufficient to determine its actual value. Hold onto your seats, friends, we’re about to take a bumpy ride. Just to warn you, I tend to use c.p. for everything, and oz. as well (since I find the old English system of measurement more in keeping with D&D).

To produce an adult cow takes 2 years of caring and feeding, during which time the cow will eat an average of 560 oz. a day of forage – hay, clover, vetch, whatever you have available. The value of that forage is also set by the total number of references for forage in Dachau (which calculates at 5.525). That produces a price of 0.16 c.p./oz., which must be harvested and cleaned (I call this ‘foodstuff processing’ and for this example equals 4.225 references). The price of unprepared vetch is divided by the total number of references for preparation and then added to the base price. Thus, 0.16/4.225 +0.16 = .20 c.p./oz (rounded to 2 significant digits). This is not as complicated as it seems. The overall effect is that if the number of foodstuff processing references is reduced, the price goes up. Increase the references, and the price goes down. Think of it as a representation of the available labor.

All right, let’s return to cows. Before the cow can reach maturity, it must eat quite a lot. Most of this will be from the various fields, what it can forage on its own. For argument’s sake, I’ve established that only 10% of the animal’s food needs must be provided by the herder, and thus the economic system. This is a total of 56 oz. of vetch per day, for two years ... a total of 40,880 oz., or about 1.25 tons. This is multiplied against the cost of the forage (0.20 c.p./oz.), a total of 8,504.96 c.p. for the cow, to which is added the original cost of 207.32 c.p., for a grand total of 8,712.28 c.p. In my world, at 12 c.p. per silver and 16 s.p. per gold, that’s a round total of 45 g.p. Which is the only number my players see on the equipment list.

Good, let’s continue. Obviously, we’re going to want to slaughter our cow. At an average yield of 8,000 oz. (500 lb.) of meat per cow (this being pre-industrial Europe), the value of each ounce of meat ‘on the hoof’ is 1.09 c.p./oz. That’s the above price per cow divided by 8,000. This represents the price of the cow when it is sold to the stockyard. The stockyard also has a reference number: 8.850. So again we compute: 1.09/8.85 +1.09 = 1.21 c.p./oz. This is the price for which the stockyard sells the cow to the abattoir – or if you prefer, it is the increase in price the stockyard assigns for having to house the cows before it itself slaughters them. Once again, you will please note, if the number of references is less, the stockyard will increase the price per pound; if more, the stockyard will decrease the price.

In case this isn’t quite clear yet, consider an area where there are dozens of places close by which have references to food making or livestock wrangling. Obviously the price would be lower. Compare that to a place where there are few, if any, nearby stockyards. Some number will always be indicated – as 1 recorded reference 50 days away will yield 0.025 local references. Add hundreds of references, even those far away, and you will collect a number approaching at least 1.00. Where it gets dicey is when in the whole world there are only a few references to a particular item – rubies, for example, or caviar. No matter where in the world you go, unless you are right on top of that supply the cost will be considerable. But go to the source, and it can be had for cheap. This is the basis for many English stories in the 19th century about young whelps who go to India and find gemstones by the handful. But I digress.

Once the stockyard sells it to the abattoir, we must again consider the cost of slaughtering the meat. In this case, we return again to the foodstuff processing reference number, 4.225. Thus, 1.21/4.225 +1.21 = 1.50 c.p./oz.: the price at which the abattoir sells the side of beef to the butcher after removing the offal. Slowly, the price goes up.

In case you haven’t understood this yet, all this detail gives me considerable flexibility when suggesting a price for anything not previously considered by ANY system. A character wants a bucket of cow’s blood? No problem, that’s 1.5 c.p. per oz. The character wants to buy an entire side of beef? No problem, it’s more than half the price of the cow, it’s 250 x 1.5 c.p. The genius of this system is that every single item in my world works on the same principle: build the item from scratch, identify the price.

The butcher, too, has his particular reference: in this case, the number is quite low: 0.150 represents 2.5% of the world’s references. That is because most people would butcher their own cows, rather than relying on a private individual – who will in turn charge an arm and a leg. Still, the system works just as before: 1.5/0.15 +1.5 = 11.49 c.p./oz. This is the considerable difference between having space to raise and store meat, and being a player character who must buy his meat pre-cut.

Worse, the number of references for drying or smoking the beef is only 0.250. Applying the above formula, we find that beef jerky will cost the player 57.46 c.p./oz. Ouch.

If, however, our player happens to buy his jerky in a city where it is made (and not in our imaginary city where everything is 2.5% of the world’s total), then the number of references in that place will be at least 1. If we substitute the higher number, we find that smoked beef in that city only costs 22.98 c.p./oz. Big difference. It pays to purchase wisely when one travels. What system in what game allows for that?

This is getting a little long, so let me forego explaining how one arrives at the cost of a leather boot. It is just as fascinating, I promise you.

Let us return to ghouls.

The problem, as I see it, would be establishing a reference number for ghouls, based upon A) their central location of existence; and B) their total supply. I’ve already drawn attention to the simple fact that there are more references to cattle than to butchers. Obviously there should be very few references to ghouls overall – and the farther from the source of said ghouls, the more expensive their hearts should be.

(Once we identify the base reference value, we already know how much the immediate buyer for the heart might expect to expect to get once he turns it over to the local necromancer).

There are a number of methods we might employ. In reference to this post I wrote earlier, the location of ghouls should adhere to the location of graveyards – graveyards in turn adhering to the density of population. However, it doesn’t do to suggest that more people automatically equals more ghouls, since an extensively civilized area would carefully maintain the consecration of ground, thus eliminating the possibility of ghouls.

No, what we must do is consider areas where once there were people, and now there are no longer. A logical conclusion might be to consider every ruin a point of reference for ghouls (and for the whole collection of undead, demons and nasty beasts of all forms). But there are hundreds and hundreds of ruins and lost cities in my world – too many to work with my system. Hell, there are only 23 references to diamonds (also found world-wide).

Ghouls should be rare, as rare as diamonds. Plus, it does no good to assign ad hoc numbers of references to ghouls, or any other monster, as this is exactly the sort of pulling a number out of one’s ass that started this post. No, no, we want to find something we can associate with ghouls ... and where that thing is, there ghouls are.

It turns out that I do have a reference number, specifically for things which are moderately unworldly: that number is for ALCHEMY. The total world references for alchemy are 265, of which a considerable number are in Germany. So that solves the first half of our equation: where the ghouls are. It does not remotely solve how many exist.

You remember early on that I glossed over the initial cost of cows, saying that I compared them with the total gold? That is because I have a base number for the total cows in the world, and a base number for the total gold. What I don’t have is a base number for the total ghouls in the world. If I did, I could use alchemy to identify where they were; then compare the total ghouls against the total gold. Finally, the distance the party was from ‘ghoul central’ (as determined by the alchemy) would determine the price of a ghoul’s heart.

So, how many ghouls exist in the world?

Got me.

This is the point when I usually start to fall back on the Dungeons and Dragons books. My Monster Manual tells me that ghouls are ‘uncommon.’ It further tells me (p.5) that ‘uncommon’ creatures have a 20% chance of being encountered in a region or area where there might be an inhabitant. I conjecture this to mean that there is a 20% chance that ghouls might be encountered in a 20-mile hex first established by a player character upon becoming a 9th level lord.

A 20-mile diameter hex has an area of approximately 346.41 sq.m. If we take the phrase ‘where there might be an inhabitant’ to mean arable land, then we can compute the number of hexes on earth where ghouls might inhabit: 13.31% of the earth’s land surface, or about 6,788,100 sq.m. We need not worry about the oceans, as we need not consider lacedon hearts (whole other price structure entirely). That’s a total of 19,595.57 ‘hexes’ of inhabitable land, of which 3,919 would contain ghouls.

My Monster Manual tells me that the number appearing is 2-24; an average of 13. And so our world population of ghouls is 50,948.

I must confess. At the start of this post, about two hours ago, I did not have a solution for this problem. Now it is just a question of crunching numbers. Which I’m not going to do right now, as I am tired. I’ll do it tomorrow and give the price to my players.

UPDATE:

I’ve done some additional thinking on the problem and have made the following changes to last night’s logic: 1) I have decided to base the cost on the population density, not due to the origin of ghouls, but according to the demand for ghoul hearts. Less people, less demand. 2) Rather than comparing ghouls to alchemy, I’ve decided to compare them to another product: bear’s paws (a Chinese medicinal/foodstuffs product); one body part compared to the demand for another body part. 3) Although the total population of ghouls is 50,948, not all of this number can be said to be part of the economy of the planet; many ghouls are not actually hunted for their body parts. If we apply the standard I wrote about last month of 1% maintenance per month, we can argue that 1% of all ghouls are killed per month (not necessarily by the civilized population). This is loosely 12% per year (assuming the number of created ghouls equals the number of destroyed ghouls – convenient for me). That makes the total economically important ghouls equal to 6,114.

That makes the price of a ghoul’s heart equal to 73 g.p.

Campaign: An Odd Event

As Anshelm and Kazimir partake of a drink and a meal, there enters into the Gospoda a rather pathetic figure. He seems to have suffered a burn long in his past which removed three quarters of his hair and one of his ears, and he is lame in one foot so that as he shuffles along the foot lays on its side. He is wearing a black cloak, old and with a heavy vinegar smell, so much that Kazimir (who you remember lived in gutters part of his life) is thrown off his food for a minute or two.

"Do you have it?" asks the cripple eagerly, in a cracked voice.

"Aye," says the bartender, apparently quite familiar with the cripple and entirely accepting of him. "I've had it ready since this morning."

"Excellent, excellent," says the cripple. He waits impatiently, shuffling his poor foot, as the bartender reaches to the floor behind the bar and produces a large, black ceramic jar. He puts it on the counter. It would weigh, you would estimate, about eighteen pounds, about four gallons overall. The cripple embraces it in his arms, puts it on the floor, and opens the lid.

The odor is astounding. You thought the crippled smelled bad ... you're both compelled to let out a cry of anguish, quite uncontrollably. The cripple cackles over what he sees inside. "MOST wonderful," he mutters happily. He replaces the lid - much to your relief - and says to the bartender, "You are to be commended. The master will be very pleased."

"Tell your master that he is most welcome."

"I will, I will ..." Whereupon the cripple lifts the jar, hugs it to his chest and merrily heads on his way.

The bartender does not, as might be expected, make an apology about the inconvenience the little scene offered to your dining pleasure.